What happened when poll guards showed up in heavily Latino OC districts in 1988

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At the Orange County Registrar of Voters in Santa Ana, residents can cast and drop off their ballots and register to vote. October 5, 2020. Photo by Laura Kondourajian/KCRW.

During the first presidential debate, President Trump urged his supporters to go to the polls on Election Day to “watch carefully” people cast their ballots. Trump was sowing the seed that the election may be rigged with voters cheating and therefore threatening the integrity of the election.

Columnist Gustavo Arellano says that this threat of cheating is something that came and went in Orange County. 

KCRW: What happened in 1988?

Arellano: “On the morning of November 8, you start getting all these phone calls from across Orange County, or specifically in the city of Santa Ana, like, ‘Hey, there's these police officers or security guards or just thugs outside voting precincts in heavily Latino districts holding up signs that are saying non-citizens cannot vote or asking people for their ID.’ … This was done at the behest of the Orange County Republican Party to influence the election for a vacant Assembly seat. Curt Pringle ended up winning by less than 1000 votes in that 1988 election.”

Was this in targeted places or all over Orange County?

“The district itself is not the same district anymore because they switch every couple of years. But this was basically all of Santa Ana, and this was in 20 different places. We're talking about places like a catholic church, a Boys and Girls Club, a senior citizen center, places that hold significance to Latinos. 

… State Senator Tom Umberg, then a federal prosecutor in Orange County himself, he went and he saw from a distance Latino voters approaching these polls, seeing these signs or seeing these uniformed security guards, and then turning away. When it happened, it was a complete outrage. …  Some people described it as Nazism, Republicans themselves saying that about their own party.”

This was a well-constructed plan from the top of the Orange County Republican Party. How did it come about? 

“No one ever took full responsibility for it.  So what they said though was that they had been hearing rumors, kind of like what's going on with this election, that they're hearing rumors that there's going to be unregistered voters [voting]. In this case, [the rumor was that] undocumented immigrants and even busloads of undocumented immigrants were going to be dumped off at polls to be able to vote.”

There can be an accusation of busloads of people being dropped off, but you can't vote if you're not in the voter rolls, right?

“You can't vote if you're not a citizen of the United States. … But it doesn't matter for the Republican Party [because] in their minds, they didn't have these poll guards in Newport Beach or in Corona Del Mar. They did it specifically at Latino areas because they knew what effect that was going to have. 

There was a case of a very famous police officer, Jose Vargas, who came to this country undocumented, and he was a presence in Santa Ana and Anaheim for decades. He told the reporters at the time that he showed up — he had become an American citizen at this point and a police officer. He shows up, he sees these poll watchers, and he's like, ‘Oh, I'm scared. This is the type of stuff that they try to pull in Mexico. I'm not going to vote.’ Instead, he went home and he got his own badge just to show these people, ‘Hey, you're not going to be intimidating me. And you're not going to be intimidating other people as well.’”

Did the poll guards in the ‘88 election work? Was that what helped Curt Pringle win the Assembly seat?

“Oh, yeah. When [it comes down to] less than 1000 voters in a super tight race in a very Latino district and you're seeing the story or these cases of people leaving, then of course it worked. And it's weird because at the end, there were never any criminal charges filed, even though the state, the OC DEA, the FBI, the feds, they investigated it. 

Although very tellingly in 1989, the year after this happened, then Governor George Deukmejian, a conservative Republican, signed into law a bill that outlawed uniform security guards being within 100 feet of any poll. … The Republican Party did end up having to pay about half a million dollars in fines, but it didn't kill the career of Curt Pringle, he ended up becoming the last Republican Speaker of the Assembly.” 

What are the lessons from the event 32 years ago?

“Just that you have to be as vigilant as possible with any insinuation of voter intimidation, any attempt by a politician. And by the way, in Orange County, this is something that happens every couple of years where the Republican Party threatens to have these poll watchers. Poll watchers, by the way, are completely legal, but they have to go through a legal process. If as a voter, I decide to go to my voting precinct and just hang around and see people vote, that's not legal. [In that instance, that person] should be kicked out no matter what the party affiliation is. 

… Unfortunately, when you hear a president wishing for something that was successful in Orange County 32 years ago [to reoccur in this election], well, you have to be vigilant about it. And I think the most vigilant way to get at that is by voting and telling everyone to vote.”